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Brain can feel other people's pain

A brain-imaging study suggests that some people have heightened activity in pain-sensing brain regions when they witness another person being hurt.

Brain can feel other peoples pain

A brain-imaging study suggests that some people have heightened activity in pain-sensing brain regions when they witness another person being hurt.

Observing someone else in pain produces a shared emotional experience that predominantly activates brain areas processing the emotional component of pain. To find out how the brain reacts while seeing others in pain, researchers made 108 college students view several images of painful situations - including athletes suffering sports injuries and patients receiving an injection. Close to one-third of the students said that, for at least one image, they not only had an emotional reaction, but also fleetingly felt pain in the same site as the injury in the image. The researchers took functional MRI scans of 10 of these responders, along with 10 non-responders who reported no pain while viewing the images.

Functional MRI monitors changes in brain blood flow, allowing researchers to see which brain areas become more active in response to a particular stimulus. The researchers scanned participants' brains as they viewed either images of people in pain, images that were emotional but not painful, or neutral images.

It was found that while viewing the painful images, both responders and non-responders showed activity in the emotional centres of the brain. But responders showed greater activity in pain-related brain regions compared with non-responders, and as compared with their own brain responses to emotional or neutral images. This confirms that some people have an actual physiological reaction when observing others being injured or expressing pain. The responders also tended to avoid horror movies and disturbing news images so as to avoid being in pain – which is more than just an empathetic response for them.

Patients with functional pain experience pain in the absence of an obvious disease or injury to explain their pain. The findings shall help to better understand, and possibly treat, cases of unexplained functional pain.
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